Olympic weightlifting for children and Teens : Safety and Growth

nadeau_141
Olympian and 2014 Gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, Beauchemin Nadeau is 1.66m tall.

Most weightlifting coaches and most participants (athletes, official, or club directors) have to debunk myths or beliefs about the great sport of weightlifting. While there are many beliefs that can find roots in the history, most negative – but popular- beliefs often rely on hear say, a misunderstanding of the sport of weightlifting, or anecdotal evidences. One such belief is that weightlifting is not good for children and teens as in it can stunt their growth, injure their body because it is ”not mature enough”, or that the sport is not a positive one for athletes their age. I would like to change this perception of our sport, as not only do I not believe that this sport is bad for children – but empirical evidences actually support the participation of children and teens in weightlifting.

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Disclaimers

I wrote this short essay to help shed light on the belief that weightlifting is a bad activity for children and teens. I used data from scientific inquiries rather than anecdotal evidences. I give my approval to any coach or club who wants to use/share this essay at their club or with parents of children they coach. All I ask for is to be credited for it (I.E : don’t remove my name). Thanks.

Introduction

I can not put words – or select actions- for every coaches involved in this sport and can only speak for myself and I refuse to subject myself to the use of anecdotal data only to justify my actions and beliefs. Injuries, for instance, can happen in any sports and any lifestyle activities such as driving a car or crossing a street. The role of the professional coach, however, is to be conscious of the risks and reduce all risks to the minimum.

Like any fields (whether professional or sporting fields), some people know better than others which means that some people understand better the reality of their fields and what to do. For instance, when working with young individuals, it is your duty as a coach to create age specific programs that results in technique education, balanced development of the body, improved psychological ability (self esteem, good sportsmanship, and appreciation for hard work) and adequate development of athletic attributes. All of that has to happen in a supervised and safe environment. This is more than my firm belief, it is also my motto. Moreover, I think that overlooking these aspects is failing to do your job.

Canadian Olympic hopeful, Krystel Ngarlem.
Canadian Olympic hopeful, Krystel Ngarlem.

In other words, my job as a coach working with so many kids is to teach them adequate technique while developing flexibility, proprioception, and general athletic abilities (i.e vertical jumps or triple jumps). That being said, my job is also to provide the safest education time possible by limiting any possible injury risks. What should be read here is that, not only do I not want to cause injuries in young developing individuals, I actually do everything in my power to teach in a way that prevent injuries. I do that by selecting the right exercises, choosing the right volume (quantity of work), managing the group of children I am working with (supervision and guidance) and I use a age -and level- specific approach to teach the right way of doing the lifts. I also have a low tolerance of improper lifting technique, meaning I demand good technique rather than big weights.

Accordingly, in 2009, the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) revised their position on youth resistance training. Faigenbaum stated : ”In fact, many of the reported injuries were actually caused by inappropriate training techniques, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, ready access to the equipment, or lack of qualified adult supervision. Although these findings indicate that the unsupervised and improper use of resistance training equipment may be injurious, it is misleading to generalize these findings to properly designed and supervised youth resistance training programs. Current findings from prospective resistance training studies indicate a low risk of injury in children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate training guidelines”

As an opening statement, allow me to quote a study published in the British Journal of Sport Medecine by Faigenbaum (2010) : ”evidence related to the safety and efficacy of resistance exercise for children and adolescents has increased over the past decade. The qualified acceptance of supervised and well-designed youth resistance training by medical, fitness and sport organisations is now becoming universal. Current public health initiatives now aim to increase the number of youth who participate regularly in “muscle strengthening” activities […]  sport centres serve the youth fitness market by providing programmes for children and adolescents that enhance musculoskeletal strength, improve motor skill performance and reduce the risk of sports-related injuries”

Misunderstanding of the sport of Olympic Weightlifting

Many people confuse the sport of Olympic Weightlifting with weight training. Olympic Weightlifting refers to the Olympic Sport (one of the oldest Olympic sport, by the way) in which the participant competes in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk. Olympic weightlifting is practiced in weightlifting clubs where appropriate supervision and guidance is supplied. Moreover, most weightlifting federations have developed a LTAD (Long term athlete development) program which is basically an evidence based guidance tool that helps the coach select the right action for the level and age of the participant. Following such program will reduce injury risks. The LTAD takes a kid through stages, from age 9-10 to senior levels to reach the highest performance possible internationally over 10+ years. Here is a link to the Canadian LTAD program which is composed of 7 stages.

Weight training is the action of lifting weight for health or physical reasons (i.e looking better). It is not a competitive sport supported by a LTAD program and most of the participant train unsupervised doing programs that may or may not be good – or adapted- for them. When prescribed and supervised correctly, weight training is a terrific activity to improve overall health. It is, however, not as good as Olympic weightlifting to improve athleticism (Chaouachi, 2014).

The confusion between Olympic weightlifting and weight training is probably one of the reason why many believe Olympic Weightlifting is bad for children. Weight training is – and will always be- more popular and accessible than Olympic weightlifting. Due to the rather low skill level of the activity, many people can participate in weight training and this may contribute to anecdotal evidences of injuries in weight training.

credit Wonderlifter
credit Wonderlifter

Anecdotal evidences versus Empirical evidences of the risk of injury in youth participants of Olympic Weightlifting

According to the Wikipedia page, Anecdotal evidences are based on small samples which means that ”there is a larger chance that it may be unreliable due to cherry-picked or otherwise non-representative samples of typical case”. For example, you may know somebody that may have an injury from weightlifting (or confuse a weight training injury for a weightlifting injury). However, due to it being anecdotal (only 1 participant out of the whole pool of participants), you can not state that ”weightlifting” causes injuries.

On the other hand, ”empirical evidence is a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation or experimentation. Empirical evidence is information that justifies a belief in the truth or falsity of a claim […] In science, empirical evidence is required for a hypothesis to gain acceptance in the scientific community […] This requires rigorous communication of hypothesis, experimental constraints and controls and common understanding of measurement” (Wikipedia).

In other words, if one wants to make the claim that Olympic Weightlifting is a high risk of injury sport, one needs empirical – rather than anecdotal- data to justify the claims being made. A quick review of the literature shows that it does not seem to be the case (I reviewed risks of weightlifting injuries here). Faigenbaum (2009), referring to a study of the relative safety of weightlifting and weight training by Hamil (1994), states that ”the overall injury rate per 100 participant hours was 0.8000 for rugby and 0.0120 and 0.0013 for resistance training and weightlifting, respectively. This later finding may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that the sport of weightlifting is typically characterized by well-informed coaches and a gradual progression of training loads, which are required to effectively learn the technique of advanced multi-joint lifts. With qualified instruction and a stepwise progression of the training program, researchers have reported significant gains in muscular strength without any report of injury when weightlifting movements (snatch; clean and jerk; and modified cleans, pulls, and presses) were incorporated into a youth resistance training program”.

Credit Rob Macklem
Credit Rob Macklem

Olympic Weightlifting and Growth

Another common belief is that weightlifting stunt growth of children. Referring to Naim Suleymanoglu, arguably the greatest weightlifter of all time, I have heard people say things like ”He was a dwarf because he never grew due to weightlifting”. Again, we can not take one example and generalize it. People often forget that Olympic Weightlifting is sport based on weight categories. There are 8 weight categories for males (56kg, 62kg, 69kg, 77kg, 85kg 94kg, 105kg and 105+kg) and 7 weight categories for women (48kg, 53kg, 58kg 63kg, 69kg, 75kg, and 75+kg).

Biomechanist Robert Roman collected lots of antropomorphic data of top level weightlifters of every weight class. A table showing these data can be found in Bob Takano’s Weightlifting Programming book. What we are seeing is that a top level 56kg male lifter will be, on average 149+/-3cm (approx. 4.9ft) tall whereas an 85kg elite male lifter is, on average, 169+/2 cm (approx 5ft6) and a 105kg lifter is 176+/- 2cm (approx 5ft8). The most populated categories tend to be the 77kg to 105kg, by the way. Overall, the height of most lifters is pretty much ”normal” at least to me.

Moreover, quoting a study by Falk et al. (2003) on resistance training, skeletal muscle and growth, Faigenbaum (2009) states : ‘There is no detrimental effect of resistance training on linear growth in children and adolescents”. Indeed, bone density is related to weight bearing activity hence why astronaut who are not subjected to gravity in the same fashion during space flight, lose bone density during their flight (up to 1% of their total bone mass is gone per month). Interestingly enough, lots of money is spent on developing specific resistant training apparel for astronauts to use during their flight.

Furthermore, quoting other studies, Faigenbaumb (2009) reports ”that adolescent weightlifters displayed levels of bone mineral density and bone mineral content well above values of age-matched controls.” All in all, the scientific literature does not support the idea that weightlifting stunt growth. By the way, apparently the tallest successful weightlifter is Velichko Cholakov who won a bronze medal in the 105kg+ category at the 2004 Olympics. He is 6ft6.

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references

Chaouachi A, Hammami R, Kaabi S, Chamari K, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Olympic weightlifting and plyometric training with children provides similar or greater performance improvements than traditional resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2014

Faigenbaum AD, Myer GD. Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jan;44(1):56-63.
Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, Jeffreys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, Rowland TW. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. J Strength Cond Res. 2009

4 comments

  • I don’t know about weightlifting. As an athletics coach I would advocate that lifting your own body weight i.e. press ups, tricep dips etc is enough until you are over 16 years of age. I have known Irish dancers as young as 12 years of age end up in plastercast from sheer pressure on their joints and I feel this would apply to other sports where weights is involved.

    • Refer to the part on anecdotal evidences vs empirical evidences. Again, the point is not to have a 10 year old lift maximal weights but learn technique and develop athleticism. We develop lifters over time with a gradual approach which helps in building the articulation tissue and the muscle mass around it to make it stable. The scientific literature is behind such an idea and also supports that proper use of weightlifting in youth reduces sport specific (other sports) injuries.

      At 16 years old, the best in the world are already 5+ years in training and are handling much bigger weights due 1) proper technique 2) proper body development and 3) hormonal changes due to puberty. Not many elite lifters are successful when starting after 16 years old.

      Also the concept of sheer pressure is relative, meaning sheer pressure is applied on most joints during most sport activities. For instance, running and changing rapidly direction puts high forces on knees (hence the acl injuries). The same thing could be said for diving, for example. If not landing right, the amount of pressure applied on the body (shoulders, elbows, neck and head) is much higher.

      • I agree about the technique, in athletics technique is very important as in other sports. It is just the evidence I have seen relating to growth and bone structure suggests not allowing any weights bar a broom handle.
        I think we will have to agree to disagree on 15 year olds lifting weights but as in everything time will tell. I enjoyed reading your article as it is only by constantly questioning training methods that we will learn.
        Take care

      • there are no evidences suggesting that weights are bad for growth or bone structures. i covered that in the article deeply. it is even encouraged to do so as we speak.
        More over, being sedentary is probably the leading cause of the worsening of bone structures and weightlifting makes stronger bones as well as more stable articulations (studies on this can be found through pub med).

        thanks for reading.

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